"When You're Wounded and Left on Afghanistan's Plains" (Kipling)


March 20, 2006 15:06

Two opposition views of Afghanistan:

British activist and Dutch MP want to know why their countries are participating in a dangerous adventure

Firstly: Will Afghanistan be the graveyard for NATO ambitions? asks Jim Addington

By the summer troops from NATO will have been deployed in the south, in three-quarters of the territory of Afghanistan. In a rotating command they will first be led by Britain. Germany, France and Spain want no part of it. The Dutch had their doubts, but the leader of the Canadian contingent is gung-ho.

In the Toronto Star of November 11 last year an article 'Our Man in Afghanistan' described the attitude of the Canadian brigadier-general, David Fraser, who will command their troops. At the time he was expected to lead a joint Canadian, US and UK force.

Although the mission is not intended to be aggressive - that role has been retained by the Americans - David Fraser said "when we identify the enemy, we will work with the Afghan army to take them out". His views were echoed by Col. Steve Noonan, then commander of Canada's military presence in Afghanistan, who told the Ottawa Citizen 'Our goal will be to kill or capture those elements'.

In case there is any lingering doubt about the intentions of the Canadian contingent. Brig. Fraser also indicated that their role had moved from peacekeeping missions. "In the early '90s that changed. Our experience in the Balkans, in Afghanistan; we are experienced warriors".

Nor was the dangerous nature of their mission lost on the Canadian defence minister at the time, Bill Graham, who said that "Canadians, perhaps do not yet have a full understanding of what we are getting into".

NATO took command of ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force) in August 2003. It is the first major mission outside the 'Euro-Atlantic' area in NATO's history and is a very different role from that anticipated by its founding Charter which was to defend Europe against an anticipated Soviet invasion. After 9/11 NATO leaders were quick to invoke article 5, which was an agreement to come to the support of a member state if attacked. However, at that time the US government was lukewarm to the idea, probably because it had a different agenda.

During recent months many misgivings have been voiced about the dangers of the mission in Afghanistan. The Independent's Asia correspondent, Justin Huggler, reported in November that until now British troops had been operating in Kabul and the north "where international forces have been largely welcomed by Afghans who suffered persecution under Taliban rule". But he said that in the south "there is widespread support for the insurgency and opposition to any western presence in Afghanistan".

He also alleged that Helmand, the location for the new NATO deployment, is notorious even with Afghans for the ferocity of its tribesmen. This will make awesome reading for anyone familiar with earlier wars between British forces based in Ubdia and the fighters of Afghanistan.

In an even more dramatic report in the Daily Telegraph last November, Vicki Woods reminded us that Kipling had written of the fierce Afghan warriors in a poem sent to her by a former officer in the army in Burma,

"When you're wounded and left on Afghan's plains/ And the women come out to cut up what remains/ Just roll up your rifle and blow out your brains/ And go to your Gawd like a soldier".

Winston Churchill, who was an enthusiastic participant in a campaign in Afghanistan at the turn of the 19th/20th century described In 'My Early Life' how the regimental Adjutant had been killed and the acts of revenge carried out by the British troops.

"The Adjutant had been shot. Four of his soldiers were carrying him. He was a heavy man and they all clutched at him. Out from the edge of the (village) houses rushed half a dozen Pathan swordsmen. The bearers of the poor adjutant let him fall and fled at their approach. The leading tribesman rushed on the prostrate figure and slashed it three or four times with his sword".

There is a saying that 'Revenge is a dish best tasted cold'. Their commander ordered them to return "to stay in the Malmud valley, and lay it waste with fire and sword by vengeance. This accordingly we did, but with great precautions. We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.

"...the tribesmen sat on the mountains and sullenly watched the destruction of their houses and means of livelihood". In the plains this was easy, but when they attempted to carry the devastation up the mountains they met with heavy casualties. Churchill ends the story with "Whether it was worth it, I cannot tell. At any rate, after a fortnight, the valley was a desert, and honour was satisfied".

During the present occupation in Afghanistan 100 people have been killed in some 30 attacks in the past three months. The British forces now poised to enter the dangerous southern region of Afghanistan face the same fierce and resourceful warriors. Will this be a similar futile operation against a warrior nation whose inhabitants have lost nothing of their determination and resistance to occupation.?

In Churchill's time the British troops were based in what is now Pakistan. This time the insurgents are training beyond the Pakistan border: NATO forces are unable to prevent these deployments and will find it difficult to deter them. While John Reid, the UK defence minister is optimistic, how soon will British military deaths in the new theatre of war match those incurred in Iraq?

And secondly, Jan Marinissen, leader of the radical left Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP), and chair of its 8-strong team of MPs, participated in a recent parliamentary debate on his country's role in Afghanistan, calling for withdrawal of Dutch troops.

"You can't develop a country with bombs…"

International and war-related questions are always the most difficult. Decisions can have massive consequences, for good but also for ill. The Srebrenica tragedy happened only ten years ago and remains engraved in all our memories. Our country's constitution states that we will serve and further the international rule of law. That is a major and important good, which the SP supports. Our differences with other parties lie not so much in words as in deeds.

What does the international rule of law mean exactly? Is it a static set of rules? Can it be relied on to provide an answer to the difficult questions which reality poses? The answer is 'no'.

Looking at the present world order we cannot say that we have 'one law for all'. On the contrary, much is unequally divided: wealth, security, democracy and human rights, hope, the chance of a better future. My party wants to do something about this. International solidarity is therefore one of the moral pillars on which rests our political edifice.

Politics is applied morality, yet every politician has the duty to filter his or her morality through the sieve of Realpolitik, to ensure that what we do is legitimate, effective and proportional. It's important that the cure doesn't end up worse than the disease.

Afghanistan is a poor country, one with a history of violence, poverty, oppression and occupation and an unenviable immediate future. It deserves every support from the world community and therefore from us.

Yet of what should that support consist? What can we do, what do we want to achieve? We can do a great deal, as has become obvious in recent years. But you can't develop a country with bombs, you have to do it by winning confidence and helping people on their way.

So it's good that at the end of January there was a donor conference in London. The promise of €10 billion is a fine start. Afghanistan has still got a long way to go. From feudalism and the tribal relations which go with it to modernity is a distance which we needed many centuries to traverse, but with real support, aid and sympathy the Afghans can perhaps achieve this more quickly.

The US desire to establish world hegemony has always been rejected by my party as a short-sighted and dangerous policy. War is barbaric, whether it is Al Qaida or the Americans holding the guns. We have always opposed the US approach in Afghanistan, unlike the government and the majority in this parliament. We will not vote to support to send soldiers once again to Afghanistan, not only because the violence which will be applied is disproportionate, but, even more importantly, because it will be counterproductive.

In many areas of the country, and especially in Uruzgan, no distinction is drawn between Taliban guerrillas and the population which supports them and offers them refuge. This is leading to a military approach of which we have all seen examples on our televisions. The SP wants and will take no responsibility for this. Three out of four Dutch people agree with us, with most of them saying that they do not believe that this is a peace-keeping mission, but that it will be the conduct of war in support of the Americans.

At the end of the debate, the SP, together with the Green Left and the small centrist party D66, presented a resolution calling for a clear distinction to be drawn between the peace-keeping ISAF mission and Operation Enduring Freedom, stating that in the province of Uruzgan there was no guarantee that they would not overlap. The resolution further stated that the chances for reconstructing Uruzgan through these means were vanishingly small, and that for these reasons "the sending of Dutch soldiers to Afghanistan must not continue."

As expected, the motion was rejected. Aside from MPs from the three signatory parties, only one PvdA (Labour) member voted in favour.

Jim Addington is chair of the UK-based Action for UN Renewal. Jan Marijnissen is leader of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands

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